Carmen, Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, London

Guillem holds a wild 'Carmen' together
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The Independent Culture

Sylvie Guillem has never made any secret of her liking for Mats Ek's choreography. In fact she got him to create two roles for her on television, but has had to wait until now for the Royal Ballet to mount one of his works. Luckily the wait was worthwhile: Carmen is one of Ek's most gripping original works, with a powerfully meaty title role, and Guillem gives a great performance in it.

Ostensibly Ek makes Don Jose the central character, the action being his unreliable memories, while awaiting execution, of how he came to murder Carmen. But inevitably (given the familiar novella by Prosper Mérimée on which all the films, ballets and other treatments are based) he remains pretty much a wimp. Massimo Murru plays the part ably, but there is no disguising that it is Carmen herself who counts, especially as the music Ek uses is the fifty-minute adaptation of Bizet which the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin wrote for his ballerina wife Maya Plissetskaya. And Guillem is not one to stint in performance. She throws herself into the wildness of Ek's choreography, including the aggression, the shouting and the leitmotif of phallic cigars.

This is no obvious showpiece for a classical ballerina. The movements are distorted, sometimes grotesque; the role is set out in intermittent fragments; and because it shows Jose's take on what happens, there is not even consistency in the character. But Guillem's personality and involvement hold it all together to justify the ballet's title. Carmen is always a compelling figure on stage, but what is notable about the various ballets based on her is how much she varies from one treatment to another.

Ek's approach offers comedy as well as sex, a matter-of-fact acceptance of triumph and misadventure, a down-to-earth response to each man she encounters. This could be disconcerting if you go to it expecting the Carmen of the opera, or a dance interpretation like those of Zizi Jeanmaire, Plisetskaya or Marcia Haydée, to name some outstanding past performers. But on its own different terms, it works as well as any of those.

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